A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, December 22, 2013
Texts: Isaiah 7:10-16;
Everyone loves that good old Christmas story about Ahaz, right? “Good King Ahaz, he looked out, on the feast of…” What’s that? You say you don’t remember th e story and there’s no such carol. No one loves or wrote a song praising Ahaz, King of Judah? Well, why is that, I wonder? Because Ahaz is stubbornly stuck in his ways? Because he’s afraid to take a chance on God? Because he’s so obsessed with the present that he can’t see the future?
Well, in case you don’t remember, let me fill you in. Ahaz was king of Judah, grandson of Uzziah, a young ruler in Jerusalem during the time of first Isaiah. What’s that you say? Skip the details and get to the point? Alright, but you need to know a little background. The rulers of a couple of neighboring kingdoms – Ephraim or Israel and Aram or Syria – were mad at Ahaz because he wouldn’t join them in an action against Sennacherib, the ruler of the Assyrian empire.
Now you really couldn’t blame Ahaz for being cautious since the Assyrians had already invaded that northern kingdom of Israel and pretty much hauled all his cousins into exile. No sir, Ahaz was not a fool. He was having no part of a fight with the Assyrians but the result was his nearest neighbors were planning to get together and conquer his kingdom. You see poor Ahaz was stuck between a rock and hard place. He was desperate enough to be in serious thought about asking the Assyrians to help him out against his pesky neighbors.
Enter Isaiah onto the scene. Just what Ahaz needed – some self-righteous prophet, claiming to speak for God. “Listen, Ahaz, trust God. He will take care of you. The kings of Aram and Ephraim will be out of business before you know it and you sure as heck don’t want to climb into bed with Sennacherib. He’ll eat you alive.” But poor Ahaz is too terrified of his present dilemma to look very far into the future. Trusting in God is a lovely idea but really has not practical purpose for Ahaz. He’s a realist. It’s much easier for him to see the kings of Aram, Ephraim and Assyria than it is to see God.
Thus we arrive at our text. Ahaz has refused the prophet’s offer of God’s help. There is an almost defiant exhortation to the recalcitrant Ahaz. “Go ahead,” God says. “Put me to the test.” Suddenly pious, Ahaz refuses to put God to the test – and you can see why. It really goes against all tradition. Remember that Jesus rebuked Satan for trying to put God to the test. It provides just one more challenging option for Ahaz and, frankly, he’s up to his eyeballs in options. “No, thanks, Isaiah. I think I’ll stick to my original plan to go with Sennacherib and the Assyrians.”
“Fool,” says the prophet. “Your lack of faith has worn God out. God is going to give you a sign anyway. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel – God with us. Before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.” And you know, that is how things worked out and that’s why we don’t remember Ahaz today or sing songs about him. He got it wrong. His lack of faith did him in.
Walter Brueggemann writes of this text that it tells of an epic battle between faith and fear. In the case of Ahaz, fear wins out. The relationship of his people to God goes back centuries before Ahaz is born. Over and over God encourages the ancestors of Ahaz to put their faith in God, that trusting God will not only get them through the hard times but will lead them to the really good times. Ahaz knows the ancient story well and still he lets fear overwhelm him.
We need to be clear in considering this tale that faith is not a matter of assenting to a set of beliefs. Faith is trusting in your bones that God is with you and will take care of you. Yes, I know that sometimes the road winds up hill and down, is steep and full of curves and the way ahead is not clear at all. And still you know that the One who holds the future walks with you day by day and step by step. I can’t explain it all to you. I can just tell you that I know it’s true. As the old song reassures, “the One who holds the future is the One who holds my hand.”
Unlike King Ahaz, we can pray with Thomas Merton, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone” (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude).
And what of Advent, let alone Christmas? Well, Isaiah may not be foreseeing Matthew’s account of Jesus birth when he speaks of Immanuel, but both the prophet understand and put their faith, their trust, their very lives into service of this great truth – God is with us. As John Boswell has written, when God has made all the written and oral arguments God can make through the law and prophets, God grows weary of those efforts and comes in the most powerful argument that can be made. God comes in the flesh, takes human form, lives among us. We know human life and we can put our trust in the one who shares our human existence, who shows us the way and leads us to God.
The story of Ahaz is a very real political one as is the story of Jesus. But they take such different routes. In fear Ahaz turns to the biggest power on earth. He puts his faith in military might. He decides to run with the “big dogs.” In faith Jesus turns to the power that transcends every earthly power that we can imagine or invent. Jesus puts his trust in Love. He decides to go with God. Born in a palace, Ahaz can’t imagine life without his illusions that might and wealth will save him. Born in a stable, Jesus can only imagine a life that lifts us to heaven because he knows how to let go and rise on wings of love.
Joseph trusts the angel’s message as does Mary and the shepherds and the Magi. Those with open eyes and ears, hearts and minds, see the Holy presence, hear the angels sing, turn toward the Love that is on the way and make room in their lives.
We started Advent with the notion that we might be in preparation – preparation for a journey to the mountain of God where the Christ might be born once more in each of us. And if Christ is born anew in us, if the transforming power of love is alive once more in us, we may also, with fear and trembling, with courage and joy, put God to the test as we reach for renewal and commit ourselves once more to building the city of God. That work, which Ahaz could not imagine, becomes our life’s work. Love is on the way. Can you hear it? Can you see it? Can you feel it? Will you trust it?